M. R. James’ “Rats” is another very short story in which the protagonist Mr. Thompson stays at a quiet inn for what might seem a relaxing vacation until he stumbles upon a secret. Mr. Thompson’s curiosity builds the story’s intensity to the point of “explanation”.
This quotation from the story applies, I think, to many such tales of the supernatural:
You might have thought that Thompson would have made some attempt at ferreting out stories connected with the inn – hardly perhaps from Betts, but from the parson of the parish, or old people in the village; but no, the reticence which commonly falls on people who have strange experiences, and believe in them, was upon him.
‘He’s been there long enough to know. I only says it wouldn’t be my choice. What with the passing bell, and the torches when there’s a burial, and all them graves laying so quiet when there’s no one about: only they say there’s lights – don’t you never see no lights, Master Poole?’
More stories within stories in M. R. James’ “There Was A Man Dwelt By A Churchyard”. This one is the shortest James story I’ve read so far at only about three pages but the scary factor is just as strong as the lengthier ones.
James has “made up” a story that a child in one of Shakespeare’s plays potentially told his mother. It seems the play didn’t include the story but James is certain this was it and then proceeds to tell it. It’s got graveyards, dead bodies and, of course, ghosts -ghosts seeking revenge.
In spite of the shortness, the mood, the setting, the characters, including the ghost, are perfect.
‘What I was going to say was that the people in other places round about believed that some sort of meetings went on at night-time on that hill where the man is, and that those who went there were up to no good. But don’t you interrupt me now, for it’s getting late.’
These stories are so good! M. R. James’ “An Evening’s Entertainment” combines scary story-telling in a hilarious situation.
A grandmother promises to make blackberry jam for her two young grandchildren. Her grandson tells her exactly where he saw berries to pick. Alarmed, the grandmother tells him never to go to that specific place. She then proceeds to tell the children the scariest, goriest story one could imagine. It’s a story that was handed down to her from her father.
As I’m reading the grandmother’s retelling, I don’t know whether to cringe in fright or laugh out loud. I kind of did both because what grandmother in her right mind would tell this kind of story to her grandchildren. And then there’s the story’s title, again: difficult to tell whether the kids were entertained listening or the grandmother was entertained telling. At least based on this story, one can’t say that horror stories (movies, TV shows, etc.) have somehow gotten scarier and gorier in recent decades.
Then to cap it all off, the granddaughter asks for a light in her room when she’s told to go to bed after the story. The grandmother’s response is “A light in your room? The idea of such a thing!”
Now this John Boscoe, no doubt about it, was a singing fool. John was a bass singer, and he had the sweetest and the deepest bass anybody had ever listened to on this earth. There ain’t never been no voice like it before nor since.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a good “deal with the devil” story and Arthur P. Davis’s “How John Boscoe Outsung the Devil” is one of the best. In these types of stories, the devil usually doesn’t win and I’m not giving anything away by saying he doesn’t in this one, either. It kind of gives that away in the title.
Pride being one of the seven deadly sins, John Boscoe’s amazing singing voice goes to his head which of course brings on the devil’s challenge to John in a singing contest. For a brief period of time in the story, we get to see things from the devil’s perspective which gives the story both humor and a little bit of depth and realism (within the context of the story).
John win’s the contest (as the title states) not through sheer determination, skill and talent. How he wins provides the secret of the story. It provides the curiosity to keep reading even though the writing is so wonderful, I didn’t really need more of a reason to keep going. The story is a folk tale without being too folksy and even knowing the outcome makes it one well worth reading.
This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke I read it when I selected the Jack of Spades for Week 26 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
His tracks showed that he had run along the side of the battery, had turned sharp round the corner of it, and, small doubt of it, must have dashed straight into the open arms of someone who was waiting there. His mouth was full of sand and stone, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.
M. R. James’ “A Warning to the Curious” uses a narrator within a narrator within a narrator and I might still be missing one of the levels of storytelling; however, in spite of the difficulty of keeping track of who is talking, the story stands out in all of its chilling grandeur.
The curious (and early twentieth century) character in the story attempts and succeeds to dig up a ninth century crown when realizing where it could be buried. The crown, though, or at least the crown’s original owner it seems, doesn’t like being found.
The theme of sin and redemption jumps out in this story as an attempt to put the crown back doesn’t seem to work. Though the curious gentleman does get the crown buried again, the deed’s been done! Yikes!
Anyone, anyone can break loose from his chains. That courage, no matter how deeply buried, is always waiting to be called out. All it needs is the right coaxing, the right voice to do that coaxing, and it will come roaring like a tiger.
In William Melvin Kelley’s novel A Different Drummer, Tucker Caliban leads the black population of his home town and the home town of his ancestors away from the 1957 south toward the north. The story is told from the perspective of numerous white residents of the town.
Tucker’s courage to do something about his situation is more than a typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. It goes deeper than any political ideology. We don’t know what happens after everyone moves north but we get the idea that life won’t be easy there either. But a step has to be taken and the courage to take that step comes from somewhere in Tucker’s psyche going back generations to the African man who was first brought to the American South.
Kelley allows for some of the white characters and black characters to have a mutual respect for each other. There are white characters that know things have to change.
It’s an interesting question as to why Kelley tells the story from the perspective of white characters. I don’t know an exact answer; however, I’ll take a stab and say it highlights both the complete lack of understanding that many of the white population have toward the black population and it highlights the lack of ability the white folks have to change the situation even if they see it as wrong and needing change. Again, that’s where Tucker comes in.
The power in this novel deserves to be heard – and felt.
Nor could you ask for a better place. Midsummer afternoon, shade and scent of a vast lime-tree, cool, swirling water within five yards. It was long before either of them suggested a move. But about six, Mr. Richards sat up, knocked out his pipe, and said: ‘Look here, it’s cool enough now to think of a stroll, if you’re inclined?’
M. R. James’ stories start out so pleasant and “A View From A Hill” is no different. But soon we are looking out of binoculars that are actually a dead man’s eyes. I have to say that this is one of the creepier stories I’ve read so far but its also one of the most fascinating.
What one sees and what one doesn’t see take on new meaning here. Perhaps James is even attempting to pit the naturalist and the supernaturalist against each other?
Then the butler tells a story to wrap up this story but things don’t exactly wrap up even if there are explanations.
Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment.
This is how M. R. James’ “A Neighbour’s Landmark” begins. Most readers and book lovers can relate. This love of books also kicks off the story as the narrator finds himself in a new library as described above and stumbles upon a riddle regarding Betton Wood, the once-named land close to where his host lives.
Curiosity takes the narrator on a little stroll (apparently M. R. James enjoyed walks in the country, too, as there seem to be more and more of these occurring in his stories) to this land that used to be called Betton Wood. This is where both the supernatural story and the more earthly, historical story collide and intertwine with each other.
In reading James’ stories, I’m getting a sense that while in many cases, he separates the physical and logical and intellectual from the ethereal and supernatural. So far, though, he manages to weave them together perfectly without making them conflict. Not that a conflict between these two ways of thinking would be bad, they could make for quite a fascinating story. We’ll see where James may take this.
He did not stop his work; nor did he look at her, but answered her questions and made the bed with the proficiency and cool detachment of one used to confronting stupidity in the intelligent. It was bargained and paid for in the price of her ticket and his was a patient and polite endurance of her right to be stupid.
James Alan McPherson’s story “On Trains” takes us on a smooth ride with all the hustle and bustle of porters, passengers and bartenders until we hit a rough spot as a white southern lady gets on at Dearborn and then refuses to sleep in her bed while the porter (a black man) does his job of sitting outside her berth (and everyone else’s) in case anyone needs anything. As he points out, he has been doing this job for 43 years.
Just like the porter as quoted above, the writing has a “proficiency and cool detachment” that easily contrasts with the commotion caused by the one passenger. It’s interesting that all this is set on a train where people can’t just jump off whenever they want. Something has to be done. It’s also interesting that the passenger in question chooses her “values” over her comfort (and common sense).
This story is included in Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best edited by John Henrik Clarke I read it when I selected the Five of Spades for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
‘…it’s a funny thing to me I don’t, with the feeling I have as there’s someone settin’ here – no, it’s the other side, just within the screen – and lookin’ at me all the time I’m dustin’ in the gallery and pews. But I never yet see nothin’ worse than myself, as the sayin’ goes, and I kindly hope I never may.’
In M. R. James’ “The Uncommon Prayer Book”, he leads the story off by having Mr. Davidson take a leisurely vacation walk in the country. He makes this walk so pleasant and peaceful and engaging that I wanted to go out and just start walking – although I’d have to drive to get to the country. It’s amazing how James takes this walk and just gradually walks Mr. Davidson to an old unused chapel and its caretaker.
In the chapel, the caretaker shows Mr. Davidson the copies of The Book of Common Prayer which she keeps covered up though everyday when she enters the empty chapel, they are uncovered and all open to the 109th Psalm – a vengeful, angry, cursing Psalm.
Mr. Davidson finds some historical significance to these specific prayer books as he stumbles into a more conventional mystery surrounding the theft of the prayer books. As Mr. Davidson and the police attempt to catch the thief, the story moves back to the supernatural as we realize the prayer books can take care of themselves.
So far its been difficult to pick a favorite of the stories in this volume but this one is up there towards the top.